Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What Is a Religion?

Do you know anyone who practices a religion called “Onionhead?” I would venture to guess that you do not. This did not, however, stop a federal court from recognizing Onionhead as a religion in a case in which employees accused their employer of firing or disciplining them because they did not practice Onionhead. The case demonstrates the need for employers to understand how courts define a religion in the context of the workplace. 

In 2007, the CEO of a New York discount medical plan provider felt that the culture of his company was deteriorating. To improve the culture and bring harmony to the workplace, the CEO hired his aunt to implement a program she developed called Onionhead. The plaintiffs claimed that the Onionhead program required employees to engage in group prayers and chants in the workplace, light candles, and respond to emails relating to demons, Satan, God, and other spiritual concepts. They claimed that they were told to wear Onionhead buttons, put Onionhead cards near their work stations, and to keep only dim lighting in the workplace. 

The plaintiffs alleged that they were fired because they refused to practice Onionhead or because their own religious beliefs conflicted with it. They claimed that employees who practiced Onionhead received favorable treatment. As a result, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit alleging that their firing violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from firing or disciplining someone because of his or her religious beliefs or refusal to participate in particular religious beliefs. 

The employer argued that Onionhead was not a religion, but a conflict-resolution tool used to improve workplace culture. The court, however, rejected this argument and held that Onionhead was a religion. It considered two factors in making this determination: 1) whether the beliefs are sincerely held by the person practicing them; 2) whether they are, in the practicer’s opinion and adherence to them, religious. 

The court found that the beliefs were sincerely held because the CEO paid his aunt to give lectures and conduct workshops with employees about Onionhead. The court also noted how the company’s upper management consistently followed Onionhead practices. The court found that the beliefs were religious because they discussed God, Satan, and demons, and required their adherents to pray. The court noted that the beliefs were “more than intellectual,” as believers would disregard their own self-interests in order to adhere to Onionhead tenants. 

Because the court found Onionhead to be a religion, if the employer forced its employees to practice it, the employer would have violated Title VII. In addition to banning discrimination against an employee because of his or her religion, Title VII also forbids secular employers from requiring employees to adhere to a particular religious faith or engage in particular religious practices. 

Employers can learn important lessons from this case. Courts are likely to broadly define what constitutes a religion. If an employee ritually engages in certain practices, and those practices are tied to some strongly-held belief, it is possible, perhaps likely, that a court will find the employee to be practicing a religion. Only if an employee’s religious beliefs significantly interfere with his or her ability to perform the job can an employer discipline or fire the employee. If faced with such a situation, employers should contact an experienced attorney for advice.